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Howard's fight against breaking balls

Howard's fight against breaking balls

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates manager John Russell understandably had little to say about the way teams pitch Ryan Howard.

Why give the Big Piece any help?

But Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci recently wrote an interesting story about how many breaking balls Howard sees.

The short answer: a ton.

"It would seem so," Howard said Saturday at McKechnie Field.

The gist: Howard saw more breaking balls last season than any hitter in baseball, and 49 percent more than any other left-handed hitter. He saw left-handed pitchers in 35.8 percent of his plate appearances, compared to the average left-handed hitter, who saw them 18.5 percent of the time. Howard also got a breaking ball 39.7 percent of the time, 57 percent more often than the average player.

Howard's percentage of breaking pitches also has jumped every year since he reached the big leagues: 20.54 percent in 2004, 21.34 percent in '05, 29.17 percent in '06, 33.62 percent in '07, 31.49 percent in '08 and 39.66 percent in '09. He saw breaking balls an astounding 57.4 percent of the time against the New York Yankees in the '09 World Series, when he struck out a Fall Classic-record 13 times.

"You don't want this guy to hurt you," Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson said. "He's one of the best power hitters in the game. People are not going to let him beat them."

Howard has burned teams too often, so they are trying to limit the damage.

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Breaking balls are the way to go.

"I don't want to speak about Ryan, but usually most hitters, if they make the adjustment to the pitch, they are less apt to see as many," Russell said. "Any pitcher is going to try to exploit any weakness of any hitter, especially a big power hitter. Most times with notorious power hitters, you try to pound them in and go soft away. At least that's what it's been since I've been around."

Howard has hit .307 with a .661 slugging percentage in his career against right-handed pitchers compared with just .226 with a .444 slugging percentage against left-handers. That explains why Howard sees so many left-handers late in the game. And that also explains why he has hit .298 in his career through the first six innings and just .232 the rest of the way.

But what can Howard do about it?

"I don't know," said Howard, who already sounded tired of the subject.

Thompson said he plans to set up the pitching machine, put Howard in the cage during the days he does not play in the Grapefruit League and let him see breaking balls.

One after another.

Over and over and over.

"We have to let him see them if he is going to see a lot of them," Thompson said. "He looks good right now. I think he's going to be fine."

Both Thompson and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said the best antidote to the breaking-ball diet is patience.

Howard must wait for a good pitch to hit.

Howard has not walked more than 81 times the previous two years.

"He should get 150, easy," Thompson said.

"I know he can hit them," Manuel said. "When he stays on them, he can hit them. When he hit .313 in 2006 and had 58 homers, he hit breaking balls, sliders, changeups. As long as he follows the ball, tracks the ball and stays on it ... as long as he keeps his balance, he can make contact. I'm not worried about it, because he will find a way to hit those. He can hit them. He's already showed me that he can.

"But I don't want to talk to him about walking. I want to talk to him about getting good balls to hit. If he gets good balls to hit, he will walk. It's like telling Jimmy Rollins to walk more. Jimmy Rollins is a good hitter. I want him to get good balls to hit. Don't swing at high fastballs out of the strike zone and things like that. Howard is a big strong power hitter. The walks will come if he gets good balls to hit and works the count."

It won't be easy. In fact, it could get even more difficult.

"Everybody has advanced scouts, so I'm sure they're going to start throwing him a lot more breaking balls," Thompson said, referring to the way the Yankees pitched Howard in the World Series.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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